2020 Solar Year Reading In Review

Let’s put it all together: a full roundup of the solar year’s reading, starting in December 2019 through December 2020. The list goes chronologically from dates finished. The most impactful reads were undoubtedly Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, though I most enjoyed Phil & Kaja Foglio’s latest Girl Genius novel, Margaret Willes’s A Shakespearean Botanical, and Johnathan White’s Tides. Not many bad books, most down the middle. A total of 5,303 pages.

Thanks for reading everyone, and as always, stay brave.

Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism.
Publisher: Harvest Books
Page Count: 527
My Rating: Five Stars

An indispensable book, The Origins of Totalitarianism is arguably Hannah Arendt’s magnum opus. Both a historical account and comprehensive study on the political mass movement of totalitarianism, Arendt’s work is perhaps the most important book of philosophy to come out of the war-ridden twentieth century. From the rise of antisemitism in Central and Western Europe in the 1800s, to the imperialism of the British Empire—maxing out in 1913—and the inevitable evolution into the supranationalistic movements of Nazi Germany and beyond, Hannah Arendt discusses how the transformation of classes into masses, the use of terror and pedantry are the chief forces of the totalitarian mind. Arendt also, in echoing both Eric Hoffer and Erich Fromm, analyses the nature of boredom and loneliness as preconditions for totalitarian uprising, and supplies a deep look into the psychological pathologies of hateful movements. A must read.

Laird Hunt’s In the House in the Dark of the Woods
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Page Count: 218
My Rating: Three Stars

Set in colonial America, Laird Hunt’s In the House in the Dark of the Woods is an eerie, disquieting fairy-tale of trauma and tragedy. A journey involving magical creatures and witchy women, Hunt’s story is nebulous and provocative, dealing with questions of freedom and loss, while providing fantastical images. Sometimes weird and sometimes wonderful, In the House In the Dark of the Woods is good reading. Read my full review here.

Maggie Nelson’s Bluets
Publisher: Wave Books
Page Count: 98
My Rating: Four Stars

A wonderful prose collection, Nelson’s Bluets is an exploratory work on the nature of blue. Traversing philosophical landscapes, probing deep into art, life, and the human experience, Bluets is a lyrical, rolling journey that is sure to please any lover of poetry. With an ease of style and an academic’s bent, Maggie Nelson’s work provides a release of passion into the emotional aspects of color and its blossom in the inner world.

Mara Leveritt’s Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three
Publisher: Atria Books
Page Count: 419
My Rating: Five Stars

A book that’s been on my to-read list since its inception it seems, Mara Leveritt’s Devil’s Knot was ahead of its time, challenging the modern consensus of the impossibility of false confessions during a period when America’s police and law systems felt impenetrable. Vindicated in 2011 with the release of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Leveritt’s book is a case study of poor policing and biased judging. Exhaustively researched, and a gem of investigative reporting, Leveritt carves herself a seat in the pantheon of greatest journalistic endeavors ever. An infuriating, but brilliant read, Devil’s Knot is a true crime classic, and highly recommended.

Erich Fromm’s The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil
Publisher: Harper & Row
Page Count: 156
My Rating: Four Stars

In some respects a counterpart to Fromm’s The Art of Loving with ties to (in my opinion) his most provocative work, Escape From Freedom, comes Fromm’s The Heart of Man. Part of the existentialist movement of psychoanalysis in the 1960’s, Erich Fromm removes Freudian theories out of the narrow canal of libido and into the open air. Perhaps one of the greatest thinkers in regards to human will and freedom, Fromm once again probes these topics in The Heart of Man, discussing the spectrum of violence, the elements of narcissism, and the overruling impact nurture has upon the human mind. The great challenge of modern humanity, as Fromm sees it, is in becoming fully human. A real hit or miss in some places, this is still another excellent volume by Fromm.

Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Publisher: Penguin Press
Page Count: 246
My Rating: Five Stars

My favorite read of the reading quarter, Ocean Vuong’s On Earth is full of heartrending verse and sensory prose. Though perhaps not a great novel, if one suspends the criteria of genre, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a stunning letter of hurt and love, brilliantly capturing the chasms of race and class, and inviting deep analysis into the role of masculinity and the overreaching impacts of war and violence. An emotional, cutting read, Vuong’s work is as injurious as it is healing. Read my full review here.

Phil & Kaja Foglio’s Agatha H. and the Siege of Mechanicsburg (Girl Genius Novel #4)
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Page Count: 456
My Rating: Five Stars

Adventure! Romance! Mad Science! The long awaited fourth book of the series, the Foglio’s latest installment is as enthusiastic as ever. Perhaps not a series for all, Agatha H. is pure escapism, stuffed with cute clank robots, steampunk landscapes, fantastical engineering, love triangles, talking castles, battles, laugh out loud humor, and (my favorite) Jägermonsters. Focused on Agatha Heterodyne, the last of the infamous Heterodyne family, this latest adventure takes place in Mechanicsburg, where Agatha takes her seat of power and goes against the Wulfenbach Empire and all of Pax Transylvania! I love this series, it’s everything I look for in a story, and it’s so much fun.

David K. Randall’s Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep
Publisher: Norton & Company Inc.
Page Count: 304
My Rating: Three Stars

Spurred by my interest in the COVID-19 dreams flying around, I plucked Dreamland off the shelf after it had sat there for several years and dug in. A journalistic endeavor, Dreamland is full of fascinating trivia and stories of sleep in all its variations. Though one of the lowest star ratings on this list, I nevertheless really enjoyed this book and found it helpful in understanding my own sleep oddities while simultaneously being entertained by Randall’s lighthearted narration and style. Read my full review of Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep up on NIP.

Amy England’s The Flute Ship Castricum
Publisher: Tupelo Press
Page Count: 86
My Rating: Three and a Half Stars

Perhaps one of the most unique poetry collections I’ve ever read, England’s The Flute Ship Castricum is imaginative and wending, full of dreamscapes and conversations, inciting wonder and question. In an unusual 6.5 x 8.5 inch binding, the poems and prose present in England’s volume are full of motion, sensory and idiosyncratic, creating a feeling that one is walking while reading. Ecstatic in some places, and reflective in others, my favorite line of Amy England’s from this collection would be: “To love a place forever, don’t spend too much / Time there.”

Eliza Rotterman’s Dirt Eaters
Publisher: Tupelo Press
Page Count: 33
My Rating: Four Stars

The smallest chapbook on this list, Dirt Eaters feels familiar, full of wooded imagery and earthy tones. Yet, there is power here—unexpected power—as Rotterman’s verses and stanzas suddenly break through as though a needle slowly, slowly, slowly being pushed in. At first, there is just pressure, then a puncture, then the burning probe. Little, but it packs a punch. I very much felt this volume, and I look forward to reading more of Eliza Rotterman’s work in the future.

John O’Donohue’s Anam Ċara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Page Count: 256
My Rating: Four Stars

A mystic’s book, full of meditative reflection and prayer, Anam Ċara like many spiritual reads can sometimes feel repetitive and circular, but this is often by design. Though typically I enjoy philosophy over mysticism, sometimes one seeks the quietness that faith-based or more religious texts reside in. O’Donohue’s book embraces solitude and careful, non-invasive thinking; not terribly interested in answering every question, Anam Ċara embraces uncertainty, darkness, aloneness, and in essence, is about learning to enjoy your own damn company, a lesson that many of us are still struggling to get. Achieving, maintaining, and understanding friendship and companionship with others, with nature, and with self is the chief study of this volume. A recommended read if you are finding the isolation and uncertainty of the present times difficult. One does not have to be a true-believer to find wisdom and aid in O’Donohue’s words. Full of lovely prose and calm contemplation, Anam Ċara is a fine book. Read it, and be soothed.

Adeeba Shahid Talukder’s Shahr-e-jaanaan: The City of the Beloved
Publisher: Tupelo Press
Page Count: 110
My Rating: Four Stars

Building on Urdu and Persian poetic tradition, Talukder’s Shahr-e-jaanaan looks to pay homage to these traditions while simultaneously striving to challenge them. Swinging between extremes of all consuming esteem to entrenched despair, Shahr-e-jaanaan is a collection of classical ghazal and total rebellion from the norm. A lacy, but probing volume, Talukder’s writing orbits around love and separation, as the earth revolves on its axis and circles the sun, creating light and darkness. Read my full review of Talukder’s Shahr-e-jaanaan: The City of the Beloved, up on Nothing in Particular.

Jennifer Hecht’s The Next Ancient World
Publisher: Tupelo Press
Page Count: 78
My Rating: Four Stars

Poetry from an academic, clearly, Hecht’s collection is explorative, probing, reflective, formulaic, and aloof, creating a life of deep ruminations—but the tree is upside down—with the branches and leaves growing underground and the roots reaching upwards into the sky. Hecht’s The Next Ancient World feels experimental, yet there also exists the carefulness in which Hecht chooses her words, and the exactitude of her placements. A wonderful volume that I highly recommend, The Next Ancient World is a creation story, as Hecht time-travels forward, snatching pieces of the future, and brings them to page.

Translation and Notes on Galileo Galilei, Stillman Drake’s Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo
Publisher: Doubleday Anchor
Page Count: 302
My Rating: Five Stars

A reread, perhaps I found myself drawn to Galileo again because of his time spent in imprisonment and house arrest, and as of late, I’ve felt rather cooped up and trapped; or, perhaps I’m reading Galileo again because he took great pleasure in wine, and I’ve also been taking more pleasure in wine lately, being all cooped up; or, maybe because Galileo loved music, and he often played lute in his cell, because I’ve found myself strumming my ukulele more and more since quarantine started; or maybe, maybe I’m really just reading Galileo again, because Galileo is what I read when I am sad or overwhelmed, not because of any kinship but rather because I would have liked to have known him, and not in any sort of scientific, academic way, but I rather would have liked to have known him in a personal, friendship way: How’re your daughters? How is your wife? Do you still miss Florence? Won’t you stay in Padua? Stillman Drake’s Discoveries and Opinions is a simple volume, that is less about Galileo’s indispensable work and more about his relationships, his character, his life. And those are the things I love about Galileo; not what he did, not what happened to him, but who he was.

David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends On Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself
Publisher: Gotham Books
Page Count: 302
My Rating: Three Stars

This is a coherent, straight-to-the-point book. It’s a bit of a data-dump that’s lacking in any in-depth explorative reach, but regardless, I found it to be an enlightening, well intentioned read. Mostly touching upon human biases, You Are Not So Smart is true to its title, proceeding point by point through the endless cavalcade of ways our brains can trick us. David McRaney does not probe too deeply into these irrationalities, and that’s okay, choosing a less invasive, gentler route to self-discovery through 48 small and curt reminders that the mind is a hall of mirrors of fault and folly. Very readable, You Are Not So Smart is light, frank, and intendedly aware.

Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (The Civil War Trilogy #2)
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Page Count: 355
My Rating: Four Stars

Winner of the 1975 Pulitzer Prize, Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels is historical fiction at its most visceral. An account of the Battle of Gettysburg, in the third summer of the Civil War, told from the viewpoints of men both red and blue, Shaara chiefly drew upon the letters and documentations of the men who were there, avoiding academic theory and allowing his writing to be guided by his own intuition and understanding of the direct words and descriptions from the soldiers themselves. I very much enjoyed this book, Shaara being a phenomenal writer and deftly capable of making characters feel real and flushed out. Though perhaps not a great work of history, it is, undoubtedly, a great work of fiction. It is ekphrastic in essence, and tremendously moving at times. Highly recommended.

Johnathan White’s Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean
Publisher: Trinity University Press
Page Count: 360
My Rating: Five Stars

My favorite read of the autumn season, Jonathan White’s Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean is a decadent undertaking of travel and exploration. The ocean is a masterful place, full of awe and mystery, and White captures this mystery and bottles it in the form of a 360 page hardcover. Full of engaging topics that stretches across the globe, Tides is wonderfully conceived and well written, and certainly worth any reader’s time. Read my full review up on Nothing in Particular.

Robert I. Simon’s Bad Men Do What Good Men Dream: A Forensic Psychiatrist Illuminates the Darker Side of Human Behavior
Publisher: American Psychiatric Publishing
Page Count: 376
My Rating: Four Stars

A bit old but surprisingly up to date with just a few hitches here and there, Robert I. Simon’s Bad Men Do What Good Men Dream is basically a layman’s handbook to the world of forensic psychiatry. Disturbing in its subject matter but very well meaning, Simon “breaks down the criminal mind” (as many true crime books do), and in turn creates a basic template for recognizing signs and behaviors of abuse in both victims and perpetrators. Unexpectedly, the most useful and insightful chapters in Simon’s book have nothing to do with perpetrators at all, but rather the chapters on incest/rape victims I found to be particularly compelling. It definitely expanded my understanding, and compassion, in interpreting the often strange behaviors of victims of sexual abuse. If nothing else, Robert I. Simon’s book earned four stars for that.

Margaret Willes’s A Shakespearean Botanical
Publisher: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford
Page Count: 128
My Rating: Four Stars

Well this is definitely a hidden gem. An absolutely beautiful book, Margaret Willes’s A Shakespearean Botanical will satisfy any reader who is interested in Shakespeare, botany, or Elizabethan and Jacobean England. I got this book on a horticultural hit I had some years ago, but eventually I got burned out reading about plants and it sadly sat on my bookshelf unread. This year, being the year of ‘go-ahead-and-get-shit-you’ve-been-meaning-to-do-done’, I picked it up and powered through it. One of the fascinating aspects of William Shakespeare is his fabulous knowledge of botany, a surprising intellectual quirk of his that has engaged historians for centuries. This book is an exploration of all green-things Shakespeare. Featuring images from John Gerard’s herbal of 1597 (a book that is theorized Shakespeare might have owned or had access too) Willes’s A Shakespearean Botanical encompasses explorations of medicinal and myth for dozens of herbs, shrubs, and flowers, all part of Shakespeare’s beautiful, operatic world. Definitely recommended.

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart ( The African Trilogy #1)
Publisher: Penguin Books
Page Count: 215
My Rating: Three Stars

A novel I really wish I enjoyed more than I did, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is the archetypal tragedy. Perhaps a bit too depressing of a read for COVID quarantine, nevertheless, I read it for the first time and found myself frowning through the lot of it. Achebe’s writing is crisp, moving and tugging, rendering scenes and emotions ex cathedra and providing a bridge to a world and culture long oppressed, misunderstood, and unseen. Achebe is a great writer; but, I felt absolutely terrible reading this book. Our leading character, Okonkwo, is the most unlikable of humans. It’s possible this was an intentional obstacle placed by Achebe to encourage a reader’s deepest empathy, to feel pity for and connect with a character’s downfall who one may otherwise have wished ill upon merely for his bad personality. All and all, a great piece of writing, even through the struggle.

Jeremey Scahill and The Intercept’s The Assassination Complex: Inside The Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program
Publisher: Simon Schuster
Page Count: 256
My Rating: Five Stars

A collection of articles brought forward by The Intercept based upon a leaked cache of slides obtained by Jeremy Scahill, The Assassination Complex confronts head on the USA’s morally corrupt Drone Warfare Program. With a foreword by Edward Snowden and an afterword from Glenn Greenwald*, the book asserts that drones are not the policy–assassination is. A program that has been rose-colored for the viewing public with the myth of “surgical killings”, the staff of The Intercept uncovers direct obfuscations and subversions of language to reveal a program that murders individuals (including women and children) who do not represent any threat to American freedom, all under the generalized malaise of “terrorism”. A work of excellent journalism and a hard hitting deep-state read that I highly recommend.

*On a side note, I was sad to read that Glenn Greenwald (founder of The Intercept) has since left The Intercept recently due to disagreements within the paper. Disappointing.

Roy Hazelwood’s Dark Dreams: Sexual Violence, Homicide, and the Criminal Mind
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Page Count: 273
My Rating: Four Stars

Another true crime read (I know, I know) Dark Dreams is exactly what it proposes itself to be. Focused largely on sexual predators, such as serial rapists and child molesters, Roy Hazelwood presents an articulate and well-plotted tour through the most horrific human actions, calmly steering the reader along a line of logic, making sure one does not fall into emotional folly. Again, a bit out of date as it was published in the 90s, criminal profiling, forensic psychology, and crime scene investigation are all covered. If you are someone who’s interested in true crime, go ahead and read it.

Amy Chozick’s Chasing Hillary: Ten Years, Two Presidential Campaigns, and One Intact Glass Ceiling
Publisher: Harper
Page Count: 382
My Rating: Two Stars

And last and certainly least, the book that single-handedly sank my summer reading like a pair of cement shoes, Chozick’s neurotic mess of a book Chasing Hillary was an uphill battle. Pulled from her diaries during her time following the Hillary Clinton presidential campaigns (both of them) and so repurposed into a current affairs memoir, Chozick’s emotionally draining style of writing wasn’t for me, stuffed with a weird amount of majuscule, a rather thick slathering of whining, and an infatuation with her own feelings of inferiority that left be bewildered. It read very much like an overly long tabloid article, or a high school drama, giving me a few light chuckles but mostly eye-rolls. This book was a flop for me, unfortunately. Them the breaks.

That’s the list. See ya around, dear readers. Keep up the good fight.


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